How the Gulf War brought Halloween to Germany

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How the Gulf War brought Halloween to Germany
Photo: DPA

Halloween was unknown in Germany 25 years ago. But when the Gulf War cancelled Karneval, its organizers saw a gap in the market.


"Karneval” is one of the biggest events in the German calendar, allowing revellers to celebrate in excess before the pre-Easter fast of Lent begins.

Cologne's Karneval is perhaps Germany's most famous. Around 1.2 million visitors come to the Rhine metropole on important carnival days like Shrove Monday (Rosenmontag), when a wave of masquerading visitors, wacky costumes, and floats descend upon the city.

Millions of people celebrate Carnival across Germany every year. Photo: DPA.

But all this wasn't to be in 1991, when conflict in the Middle East put a stop to the festivities.

Karneval season started as usual in November 1990. However, when the US entered Iraqi-occupied Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, an agreement between Karneval societies regarding the outbreak of war and its effect on festivities came into force. Germany would have to forgo Karneval celebrations that year.

As reported in Spiegel, the spirit of joy and celebration associated with Karneval seemed at odds with the bombs being dropped on Iraq during the Gulf War.

The cancellation took a huge toll on local businesses, with many relying financially on the buying frenzy before and during the festival.

But Karneval has always offered erratic business. Whereas celebrations always starts on November 11th, Easter hops around - meaning the festival ends on a different day each year.

“The shorter Karneval is, the lower our turnover - each week less represents a five percent drop in sales,” public relations consultant Dieter Tschorn pointed out to Spiegel

Organizers were pressed to find a solution to their financial woes. Tschorn was a public relations consultant for the German Toy Industry Association around this time, which was hit particularly hard by Karneval's fluctuating length.

After the Gulf War cancelled festivities, these Karneval toymakers eventually banded together to think up ways to recoup lost revenue.

The association's ingenious answer to the problem? Halloween.

Halloween is a surprisingly recent addition to the German calendar. Photo: DPA.

In the early 1990s, Halloween was largely unknown to Germans, and worth almost nothing to the economy. These days it's a multi-million euro industry.

Tschorn decided to start promoting the holiday that was already hugely popular in the US.

"I sent the first press release about Halloween to the German media on September 4th 1994. After that, I would put out a press release every year in September," Tschorn told The Local.

"The media seized on the annual information I gave out, and by the end of the 90s, Halloween was already a cult."

The runaway success of Halloween in Germany has been great news for Karneval's toymakers and costume designers, with Halloween-related consumption ballooning since its initial introduction.

"When one bears in mind that we made a Halloween-related turnover of zero in 1994 and today it's around €30 million, it's a success." Tschorn said.
The festival was already providing the German economy with €160 million by 2008, according to Spiegel. By 2014 it had grown to be worth €200 million.
Spookily-clad children can now regularly be seen going round to houses uttering the German equivalent of "Trick or Treat": "Süßes oder Saures?" (sweet or sour).
Halloween is hugely popular with Germany's “Süßes oder Saures” generation: young people who cannot remember a time without the night of witches and ghouls. You're most likely to get trick-or-treaters in Brandenburg, with 13 children knocking at your door demanding sweets on average, while in Germany as a whole the average is eight.
Appropriately enough, Halloween is also relatively popular in the Rhineland area, where the introduction of Halloween in Germany began, with 74 percent of people surveyed saying they would celebrate it in 2014, according to Statista.

Halloween is however most popular in Berlin, perhaps due to its young population, with 84 percent of people celebrating.

The holiday is now such a success story in Germany that it's prompting its own backlash, with increasing numbers of people, especially the older generation, finding the celebration more sour than sweet.

The killer clown craze is one of the more unwelcome recent additions to Halloween. Photo: DPA.

This is especially evident in Bavaria where lawmakers have even banned bars and clubs from opening after 2am on November 1st, a move seen by some as an attempt to stem the rise of Halloween celebrations.

The Protestant Church is also not always pleased that the originally pagan festival takes place on the same day as Martin Luther's Reformation Day. The church even in 2008 issued a call for Reformation Day to be made into a national holiday in Germany, telling Spiegel then that "when it comes to 'sweet or sour,' we have to remind people that our church has something sweet to offer."

Irked commentators also include Süddeutsche Zeitung journalist Meike Winnemuth, who blames Tschorn for the introduction of Halloween to Germany. Winnemuth sees the holiday's success as symptomatic of other unpleasant foreign imports such as the hen party.

What cannot be denied is that the actions of Tschorn and Karneval organizers brought Halloween to Germany, introducing a multi-million euro industry to the country, along with an unprecedented demand for all things strange.

Despite any negative connotations, Halloween in Germany is bigger today than ever. The question is, will you be stocking up on sweets on Monday evening, or locking your door?

By Charley-Kai John



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